The Crossing: Is devolution enough? Is independence a bridge too far?

TODAY is St Andrew's Day, a key date in the Scottish calendar, and increasing in profile as the SNP Government continues to emphasise its significance through a series of celebrations. As with our other two whisky-soaked shindigs – Hogmanay and Burns Night – there is something nostalgic about this holiday, a cask-strength whiff of auld lang syne.

Yet on this particular St Andrew's Day it is worth looking to the future, for two years hence, on November 30, 2010, the Government intends to hold a national referendum on independence. In just 24 months, the Scottish people will have the opportunity to make a decision that will shape our lives to come and that of Scots not yet born. Will we vote to separate from the United Kingdom? Or will we prefer to give the devolved Scottish Parliament greater powers?

Last week I took these questions on the road, from the Firth of Forth to the hail-lashed Hebrides, asking Scots how they feel about their country and its future. To mirror the fact that Scotland is in a transitional period, between the land it was and the nation it could become, I spoke to dozens of people who live and work in the vicinity of four famous bridges – the Forth Bridge, the Skye Bridge, Stirling Bridge, and Glasgow's Clyde Arc.

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Even on a glittering cold November morning, the promenade of South Queensferry is busy with sightseers, and the sight they have come to see is the Forth Bridge. Since 1890 it has connected Edinburgh to Fife with a mix of machismo and an almost feminine structural elegance.

Most Scots, if asked, would say they love the rail bridge, but one man who maybe loves it that bit more is Hamish Gilchrist, a local artist whose memorial to the 57 men and boys who died during construction stands outside Queensferry's Rail Bridge restaurant. I join Gilchrist for a cup of tea in the Hawes Inn, the pub where Stevenson had the idea for Kidnapped. Gilchrist, 61, used to work as a welder on the nuclear subs in Rosyth. Before that he was a blacksmith who worked on Winston Churchill's death carriage. His hands are dirty from his current project, a steel cormorant, and he mourns the decline in Scotland's engineering skill base. "The QE2 came to Queensferry recently," he says, "and when she sailed away under the Forth Bridge, I think part of Scotland went with her."

Gilchrist is the very definition of a proud Scot. Would he back independence at a referendum? "Yes," he says, instantly. Then a pause. "Or will I? No. I think of myself more as an internationalist than a nationalist."

His reaction is interesting. Like many people to whom I speak, he is drawn, as if by instinct, to backing independence, but then a moment's consideration leads to a different view. The head vetoes the heart.

Also enjoying the log fire at the inn, David Steel is a window cleaner and organiser of the Loony Dook, an annual event which, on January 1, sees Scots plunging into the freezing Forth. He favours independence because he feels Scotland doesn't get as much investment as it ought to from Westminster. "But I don't think that independence is 100% necessary to achieve what we want. Long term maybe, but the SNP have proved they can work within the current framework."

The day is painfully bright after the dim warmth of the inn. Outside the bookies, a fortysomething man is taking a fag break from the horses. What does he think of Scotland at the moment? "No very bloody much with Salmond in charge." What odds would he give the First Minister on delivering an independent Scotland? "Long odds. It's too late for that. Scotland's got nothing going for it now. We cannae make a box of matches."

This comment, though delivered with a bitter laugh and lager breath, is consistent with an opinion I hear often on my journey – that the Scotland which built ships, and made the steel with which to build them, and mined the coal with which to power the steel furnaces, could have become independent, but that the Scotland which does none of these things cannot. People seem to believe that we cannot afford independence. They also feel that the North Sea oil which might once have made us rich cannot now be relied upon as the basis of our economy; most people are worried that it's going to run out before long.

But not everyone is pessimistic. Jenni Meldrum, 51, owns Sea Kist, which sells curios including a papier mch bust of Robert Burns, on the High Street. "Scots can be their own worst enemies with a tendency to see only the downside," she says. "People should be more positive about a wonderful country, appreciate the Holyrood Parliament, and take more of an interest in what is going on there. The problem is people think it's just a talking shop. If Holyrood had more powers then the public might pay more attention."

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This is an option that is likely to end up on the referendum ballot – that Scotland continues as a devolved democracy but that Holyrood has more legislative muscle, for example the ability to raise its own finances through setting tax levels. Greater power within devolution is being considered by the Calman Commission, backed by the main opposition parties. No member of the public I ask has heard of Calman, but most people do favour Holyrood becoming more powerful – as if they want to move as close to the precipice of independence while retaining the safety net of UK membership.

Stirling Bridge is my next destination. Slap-bang between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and with a fairly well-off population, Stirling is Middle Scotland, a good place to assess the national mood. A short distance upstream, in 1297, the battle of Stirling Bridge resulted in a significant victory over English forces during the First War of Scottish Independence.

The citizens of Stirling seem less keen to shove off the yoke of English rule than in Wallace's day. People of all ages and professions are mostly happy with devolution and don't want to take the next step. But Barbara McLeod, 62, who stops on the small stone bridge on her way home from Tesco, thinks differently. "We could do better running things ourselves," she says. "Brown and Darling are trying to get us out of the mess we're in by borrowing more money. Well, we canny Scots weren't brought up to borrow money to get ourselves out of trouble."

McLeod has always voted Labour but is disillusioned by their handling of the economy. Her youngest son is in banking and worried for his job. Her other son lost thousands on a share ISA. The credit crunch makes her favour independence. The prevailing opinion I find is that in hard times it's too risky to go it alone. But McLeod is convinced independence is inevitable. "No one thought America would vote an African-American into the White House. We never thought the Berlin Wall would come down. But things change."

My journey takes me next to Glasgow, only 35 miles away but a very different Scotland. The Clyde Arc, known as "the Squinty Bridge", marks the point when Glasgow stops looking like River City and starts looking like Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The BBC and STV are here, as are several big hotels and posh apartment blocks, but just over the river to the south is Govan with high levels of poverty and all the attendant social problems. It also houses that mecca of Scottish Unionism, Ibrox Park.

I stand in the middle of the bridge as the sun rises behind the ziggurat of the Festival Park flats and chat to people as they pass. Rona McKay is walking her West Highland terrier Bonnie. The dog is wearing a tartan blanket and diamante collar, its owner a doubtful look. She returned recently to Scotland after 40 years away. "I once campaigned for the SNP, for Winnie Ewing when she got elected," she says. "But now I'm not so sure. The banks have collapsed in Iceland. Is it possible the same could happen in an independent Scotland?"

A great many people on the Squinty Bridge, when asked how they feel about Scotland right now, express great anxiety about immigration. Some have specific complaints about the inability to get a job or flat because asylum seekers are given priority, and they complain that Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister and Govan MSP, has done nothing to help. Others seem to feel that the arrival of economic migrants – the "New Scots" – has diluted the national identity. "It doesn't feel like Scotland any more," says Laura Webster, 26, who works in a bank. However, Robert Davis, a 37-year-old charity worker, says: "This country needs to embrace immigration and replicate what's happening in the big cities in England where ethnic diversity has moved them forward."

Would we be somehow more Scottish in an independent Scotland? The public seem to think not. Martin Hitchell, 21, is strolling over the bridge, bequiffed, denimed and carrying a bottle of Irn-Bru. He plays in a group called RazorGang and is a sunny optimist: "Although we're British, we've still got our Scottish identity. Independence is a crazy idea. If Scotland's not broke, why fix it?"

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Vicky Hill, 49, believes our identity is more clearly defined within the Union: "Unless we can contrast ourselves with England and Wales, our fierce pride is bound to diminish."

The last leg of my journey takes me to the Skye Bridge, built in 1995 to link the island with the mainland, and controversial from the start due to expensive tolls which were abolished at the end of 2004. I visit the communities on each side of the bridge – Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on Skye. Neither village has the feel-good factor right now. Before the bridge, both enjoyed much more tourism as ferries sailed from one to the other and visitors spent time in both. Now tourists tend to drive straight into Skye without stopping.

Sally Fraser, 27, the assistant manager of an ironmonger's in Kyle of Lochalsh, tells me that the village has terrible problems with its young people taking cannabis, ketamine and heroin, and that this has led to an increase in break-ins and theft. According to the SNP Government's National Conversation document, an extension of its powers within devolution could allow for "a particularly Scottish approach to the law on drug misuse, to provide greater protection to Scotland's communities". Fraser says that would be wonderful.

Lloyd Burt is an attendant in the most remarkable public toilet in Scotland. I can't speak for the ladies, but the gents is a riot of tartanalia – clan maps, whisky bottles, stag antlers and Ross County FC scarves. Burt is in his sixties, ex-army and a former teacher. He's always been an SNP supporter, but worries that Salmond is moving too fast, that he's ahead of public opinion on free school meals, on plans to replace council tax with a local income tax and on the speed with which he plans to introduce independence. "He doesn't listen to the people. He's snowballing ahead with things."

Walking across the bridge, I meet Helen Morrison, 34, a nurse out walking her chocolate Labrador. "I'm wary of independence," she says. "It's fear of the unknown. But then again, my sister lives in Dublin and you rarely see a poor Irishman."

Kyleakin is even quieter than Kyle of Lochalsh. All it lacks is tumbleweed. Liam Newsome, a 44-year-old fisherman, is bored waiting for the pub to open so agrees to a chat. "I would vote for independence, aye. Mostly because my own industry is getting absolutely ravaged by the European Union. I'd like to see the SNP sticking up for us."

Julie Graham, 38, works in the village shop. Originally from Livingston, she moved here 17 years ago to work in the local hotel. Her husband used to work on the ferry but he, along with 47 others, lost his job when the bridge opened. "This country is quite a dire place to live at the moment," she says. "I've got two kids and I don't think there is a lot of hope for kids in the future in Scotland. Places are closing down, going out of business." Rural communities like this are in a bad way, she says.

Despite her worries about the economy, she'd like Scotland to be independent. It's a gut feeling. "I don't feel British in the least," she says. "I'm Scottish through and through. I've travelled all over the world to watch the football team. I've been to Estonia. I was married in Malta when Scotland played there. That's my aim for Scotland – to win the World Cup."

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So which does she think will happen first – Scottish independence or football glory? "Independence," she laughs. "Definitely."